Lawrence B. Anderson on Air Conditioning

One of the important recurring themes in the history of the solar house, ironically, was the advent of air conditioning.  In the book I discuss how the solar house and the all-glass house (requiring air conditioning) developed in parallel although they were fundamentally opposed in concept.

The architects who truly contributed to the solar house movement were modernists, and so most of them sought to control the indoor environment and embraced emerging science-based standards of comfort.  But they were interested in saving energy, and so they were troubled by the increasing reliance on air conditioning. 

Lawrence B. Anderson is an important character in the book and one of those prescient critics of architecture's over-reliance on mechanical systems.  Anderson was  the Head of Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for decades at mid-century and designer of MIT's Solar House IV.  In 1959 he wrote:

"Comfort is desirable; the mechanisms for achieving it threaten to strangle our art.

The honeymoon is over in air conditioning. A large surtax of dollars and space now penalizes almost every building project. We have come to rely on gadgets instead of using our brains to outwit the climate by shading, insulation, breezes, and other adaptations that used to give regional character. Much of our time is spent trying to balance budgets that are forty per cent mechanical equipment, and the rest of it goes toward figuring out where to put all the motors, fans, valves, ducts, transformers, filters, pumps, dampers, pipes, traps, vents, grilles, compressors, and access panels.

The brightest engineers got bored with environmental control before the architects. They regard these problems as having been solved years ago, and are now at work on rocketry. We are left with a great proliferation of devices that work some of the time, but no very sophisticated advice on how to arrange them for effective use."

Our stereotype --- mostly true --- is that architecture in the 1950s paid little attention to proper envelope design and passive strategies while fully embracing the advent of air conditioning.  (See Gail Cooper's Air-Conditioning America for the larger story.)  But a vocal minority of architects like Anderson swam against the powerful tide, and their resistance, in fact a form of social protest, should not be forgotten.

[Anderson quote from  "The Architect in the Next Fifty Years," Journal of Architectural Education, Spring 1959.]